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REVIEW: BTG’s ‘Outside Mullingar’ is a blessed respite with a marvelous cast

My enjoyment of 'Outside Mullingar' surprised me; I gravitate to what I refer to as the three D’s of Irish drama: drink, death and doom.

Outside Mullingar
By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Karen Allen

John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” is an Irish-American love letter to the auld sod. I say this as an Irish-American (well, half) and how Shanley’s affection for the Irish informs his four souls in rural Ireland: an aging widower father, Tony Reilly (Jeffrey DeMunn); Tony’s adult son, Anthony (James McMenamin); the neighboring, ailing and newly widowed Aiofe Muldoon (Deborah Hedwall); and her adult daughter Rosemary (Shannon Marie Sullivan).

My enjoyment of “Outside Mullingar” surprised me; I gravitate to what I refer to as the three D’s of Irish drama: drink, death and doom. My favorite contemporary Irish playwrights are Conor McPherson (“The Weir,” “The Seafarer”) and Martin McDonough (“Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”), both expert in the darker underbelly of the Irish psyche. (My husband, who’s also half Irish-American, will have nothing to do with these kinds of plays anymore). Shanley, who received the Pulitzer Prize for “Doubt,” trades in sentiment here—not the treacly variety, the hard-edged kind. In “Outside Mullingar,” there’s only one deathbed scene; the perils of drink are missing; and doom, still lurking about, is kept at arm’s length.

Jeffrey DeMunn and Deborah Hedwall in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘Outside Mullingar.’ Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

The Reillys and Muldoons are abutting farmers, but Tony wants back a patch of land he sold to Aiofe’s husband long ago that compromises access to his farm. He doesn’t want to will his farm to his son because he “doesn’t love the farm.” Indeed, Anthony is an odd soul; he admits he’s “not right.” The fiercely outspoken Rosemary, six years Anthony’s junior, still defines her life around an innocent incident that happened between her and Anthony when she was 6 years old. Shanley lays down family exposition in the first half of the play. The real story comes in the second half when Anthony and Rosemary get on with their lives after both parents decease.

Good old Irish moodiness (Rosemary’s modern enough to call it depression) afflicts Rosemary; with reliable Irish pessimism, she observes on a sunny day, “These days are few.” Anthony, always the loner, still suffers under his father’s judgment that he was never a Reilly: “You were more like your mother’s brother John Kelly.” In the concluding scene, Rosemary and Anthony finally confront not just the baggage of family heritage but also themselves; they’re adults but still dealing with stuff that goes back to when they were kids.

Director Karen Allen has assembled a marvelous cast, but I was most taken by McMenamin, who, as Anthony, is required to maintain a quirky, mysterious enigma; all the other characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and plainly say what they think—typical Irish. The set changes are a little labor-intensive and perhaps there could be more movement in the action, but so what? What a blessed respite to see a play in which the characters—and my Irish peeps at that—might go to Mass and might not necessarily believe in God, but still are looking for signs from heaven.

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Outside Mullingar plays at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through Saturday, July 13. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 997-4444 or go to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.

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